A Lectionary Reflection on John 20:19-31, 2nd Sunday of Easter

My Lord & My God by H.C. Varghese

On the first Easter evening, the risen Jesus appears to the disciples, without the presence of the disciple Thomas. It needs to be emphasized that the locked doors “for fear of the Jews” is something of an anachronism. The first generation of disciples were all Jews, and most likely rather than reading into this pericope a division between Jews and Christians, we need to view the followers of Jesus here as Jews within Judaism. The final division between Jews who did not follow Jesus and those who did had not occurred at this point in time. There were likely several different groups of Jews within Judaism at this time who discussed and debated with one another concerning a variety of matters, including the risen Jesus. However, that doesn’t mean that they were extremely hostile towards one another. No. Rather, it probably means the opposite. We are usually most comfortable discussing and debating matter with whom we are closest to—our friends, family members and colleagues. The phrase “the Jews” then certainly, emphatically, does not mean all Jews, since the disciples themselves were Jews. Were they fearful of themselves on this occasion? Perhaps, or perhaps not, we cannot be certain about that. However, given the events of that last week of Jesus’ life, fear of the disciples even of themselves maybe should not be ruled out as a factor—since they were, among other things, likely experiencing a host of thoughts and emotions, including fear and grief. “The Jews,” if it does not include the disciples, most likely refers to only some Jews—perhaps a small group who made some kind of agreement with the Roman authorities, from which they benefited.

When the risen Jesus appears to the disciples, his first words are: “Peace be with you.” The Shalom-Peace greeting was, and still is a common one among Jews and Christians then as well as today. Here it occurs twice, and the second time, as Jesus gives the disciples a commission, a sending out to forgive and retain sins, he breathed on them the Holy Spirit. Indeed, in Paul’s list of fruit of the Holy Spirit in his Letter to the Galatians, Shalom-Peace is mentioned as the third fruit. How we all need that fruit of the Holy Spirit in our churches, synagogues and other places of worship, as well as in our world today! This is especially so after the Islamic terrorists bombing and killing of more than 300 Christians while they were worshipping on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka.

Three homiletic possibilities: i) The risen Jesus’ commissioning-sending the disciples and Christians of every generation out into the world to share the Holy Spirit’s fruit of Shalom-Peace—especially in the most violent and troubled places of our globe. ii) The importance of forgiveness in our relationships with everyone—especially our enemies during times of mad hatred all around us. iii) A sermon focussing on the disciple Thomas as an exemplar for us—in processing his grief, the movement from doubt and skepticism to faith, the joyful response of confessing the risen Jesus as: “My Lord and my God!” How do we process our grief and move from doubt and skepticism to faith and joy by being among the multitude of generations of not seeing Jesus, yet believing that he is our risen Messiah and Saviour?

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A Lectionary Reflection on Luke 24:1-12, Resurrection of Our Lord Yr C

In all four gospel resurrection accounts, it is significant that Mary Magdalene is mentioned; and the names and number of other women however vary. For example, in Matthew there is Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (Matt 28:1); in Mark there is Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome (MK 16:1); in Luke there is Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them (Lk 24:10); and in John there is only Mary Magdalene (Jn 20:1, 11-18). Obviously Mary Magdalene was a respected disciple among the earliest followers of Jesus. She and other women remained loyal to Jesus right up to the end—they were present at his crucifixion when the other male disciples had gone into hiding, they followed Joseph of Arimathea to the tomb where Jesus was laid, and they were the first to show up at the tomb early on the day after the Sabbath with the intention of respectfully anointing the dead body of Jesus with the spices that they had prepared prior to the Sabbath and had now brought with them to the tomb. The women—especially Mary Magdalene, as she is the first witness and preacher of the resurrection of Jesus—then are examples of faithful discipleship.

There is a great irony in the resurrection narratives in that, at that time, women were not accepted as ‘official’ witnesses to significant events—it was a patriarchal world. Yet, here they are the first witnesses of, for many—perhaps the majority—of Christians, one of the, if not ‘the’ most significant event of all history—the resurrection of Jesus. For the resurrected Jesus to reveal himself to the women first is a radical new tradition of valuing women as equals with men in the church which, for the most part, unfortunately was not realised until the twentieth century.

In our Lucan resurrection account, the surprise element is another prominent motif, as the women come to the tomb early Sunday morning most likely expecting the stone to be covering the tomb entrance, and inside the dead body of Jesus. Instead, they discovered the stone had been rolled away and the tomb was empty. The word in Luke to describe the womens’ first response to this is ‘perplexed.’ Perhaps they were worried that Jesus’ body had been stolen and, in the worst case scenario, that they would never find his body. What were they to do now?

The surprise motif comes to the forefront again with two men in dazzling clothes suddenly standing beside them. This terrified them so much that they wouldn’t even look at them. The two men totally surprised them with the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection, citing one of Jesus’ resurrection predictions that they had heard earlier in his public ministry.

Upon hearing this Good News, the women remembered Jesus’ words and then went to the eleven disciples—at this time Judas was no longer with them—to be the first preachers of Jesus’ resurrection.

Sadly, the eleven male apostles thought it was an idle tale—the Good News translation renders it ‘nonsense,’ and they refused to believe the women.

However, Peter being the impulsive person that he was, goes to the tomb to see for himself and ends up being ‘amazed.’

Homiletic possibilities may include: i) the significance of women in ministry and Jesus’ affirmation of the same; ii) the surprised by joy nature of the resurrection; iii) the dialectic between doubt and faith, unbelief and belief; iv) being ‘amazed’ messengers of the resurrection today; v) living with resurrection hope in the present and the future.

Christ and Thomas

Thomas has been known as the patron saint of the sceptics and doubters. Most of us I think can identify with him, since in our faith and life journey, we have times of scepticism and doubt too. As the old adage goes, there are at least a thousand words in a picture, one of my favourite works of art that depicts the risen Christ with Thomas is from Malaysian artist, Hanna-Cheriyan Varghese, titled, “My Lord & My God,” acrylic and paper, dating back to 2001. The artist, I think, captures beyond words, the depth of reverence, mystery and awe of Thomas and the other disciples, in the presence of the risen Christ.   

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Easter Header

 

Over against all human sceptical reasoning, the Church proclaims: “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” This ancient greeting of Christians has provided comfort, hope and courage, as the good news of resurrection joy has been contagiously spread around the world.

 

My favourite story of accentuating the good news of the risen Messiah goes back to communist Russia. On Easter Sunday in 1940 in Odessa, a crowd of some 40,000 Christians gathered to worship the risen Christ, However, communist agitators harassed them by making atheistic propaganda speeches for four hours. Afterwards, a congregant begged to say a few words and was granted permission. He stood up before all of those worshippers and said: “Brothers and sisters, Christ is risen!” Then, from the mouths of 40,000 followers of Jesus the reply roared out, “He is risen indeed!

 

 

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Sermon 2 Easter Yr A

2 Easter Yr A, 30/03/2008

Jn 20:29b-31

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

 

“Resurrection Faith: Thomas’ and Ours”

 

A saintly man who was a professor in a science department of a university, once was asked by a junior colleague, an agnostic, how he managed to reconcile his religious belief with his scientific knowledge. He answered in some words of another scientist, Thomas Edison: “We don’t know the millionth part of one per cent about anything. We don’t know what light is. We don’t know what gravity is. We don’t know what heat is. But we do not let our ignorance about these things deprive us of their use. 1

Belief, faith, trust…. In our gospel today, we learn of the slow awakening of belief for the apostle Thomas the doubter. I suspect that many of us here today can empathize or identify with the doubting disciple, Thomas. Ours is an age of scientific advancements, which are, without doubt, very impressive. Unfortunately, what science has taught us is that nothing is a provable fact or real unless we can examine things with our five senses; using a method of normal repeated experiments to analyze the data and draw our conclusions, based on our observations in the experiments.

In the closing verses of our gospel today, John raises for us the whole issue of believing. What do we believe? Or maybe it would be more appropriate to ask: Whom do you believe? During this season of Easter, we are confronted with the belief of the early Christians in the risen Christ. The resurrection, for those early Christians was a whole new reality, which they had never experienced before. It is, among other things a great mystery of our faith; a reality that is not easy to explain completely. If we approach the resurrection of Jesus today from a scientific worldview, we are in trouble, for the resurrection is not meant to be based on a series of repeatable experiments, observing normal data. Indeed, the resurrection of Jesus is quite the contrary—it is not a normal event, rather, it is a supernatural out-of-the-ordinary; extraordinary event. That is why we cannot base our belief—or for that matter our disbelief—in the resurrection on normal scientific data, analysis, observations or conclusions. Thomas Edison was right, what we believe from a faith or religious point of view need not be understood completely before it is of use to us. Another way of putting it may be to say that where our science ends, our faith begins.

That does not mean, however, that in matters of faith we leave our minds at the door and stop using them. Not at all, there are many profound matters of our faith, which challenge our intellect a great deal. What it does mean, however, is that our faith involves a whole series of realities going beyond our intellectual, emotional, and other faculties of our five senses. There is a multidimensional aspect of our faith, which, if you like, might be called “the sixth sense;” wherein we are dealing with deep and holy mysteries.

Jesus tells Thomas and all future would-be Christians: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now likely those of us trained to approach reality from a scientific worldview will respond to Jesus by asking: “But how does one come to believe without seeing?” I would answer that question in at least two ways. First, I would say that belief, faith in Christ, God and the resurrection come to us always as a gift from God. God is free to give us this gift of believing; initially then, it is God who speaks to our lives, who reaches and touches us in our deepest places so that we are able to say: “Yes! I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and in my own resurrection.” In this answer, it’s really not so much the “howness” that’s important, as it is the “whatness or thatness” of God’s gift of faith. You see, faith is always relational. It is always based on and deeply rooted in God’s relationship with us individually and collectively. God speaking to us and being present with us and for us in many and various ways—for most of us that means the Word and the sacraments; for others of us it is through prayer or Bible study; for others it might be through fellowship with others and deeds of loving-kindness; for others, it might mean something else.

That leads me into my second answer. In addition to faith and believing in God, Christ and the resurrection as a gift from God; we are called on to trust that the original eyewitnesses of Christ’s resurrection were telling the truth—they were not telling lies or writing nice myths and fictitious stories. To believe then in the resurrection, without seeing the risen Christ ourselves means: the eyewitnesses were telling the truth about the risen Jesus; we can trust their testimony. Here John helps us to understand this aspect of our believing and faith when he clearly states his purpose of writing his Gospel in verse 31: “But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

In other words, in writing his Gospel, John wishes to pass on; to communicate to future generations of readers the story of Jesus Christ as he experienced it. In this sense, we all are like John, God has given us the gift of believing and faith not to keep it bottled up inside, but to spread it, share it with others. In this sense, the words of John in these last verses of our gospel today challenge all of us by causing us to consider personal questions like: “What am I doing to be a witness for God? How good an advertisement am I for Jesus and his resurrection? Do people really know that Christ is risen by observing my words and actions every day? What does the resurrection of Jesus mean for my everyday living and overall attitude towards life?”

How blessed do you feel today to be here worshipping the risen Christ? The meaning of the resurrection is that through a variety of ways and means Jesus is present with us. We experience his resurrection and an inkling of our own resurrection each and every day. This happens when we wake up each morning and are given a new fresh day and fresh start to share his love with others. We too experience little resurrections whenever or wherever we encounter a new found hope or inspiration after we’ve been struggling with doubts or fears or failures. Christ is so much larger than our doubts, fears and failures. He is able to use them in our lives and in the lives of others to deepen our faith and believing. We experience new resurrections whenever we are given a clean bill of health after fearing that we might have some sort of fatal disease. We experience new resurrections in life whenever we are able to grow in trusting God with all of our life, not just in church on Sunday mornings. Our faith, if it is healthy is always on a journey into a deeper maturity, which helps us to grow in our experiences of and appreciation for Christ’s resurrection and the promise of ours.

Actually, faith is a response of the whole person. It is not something that one has once and for all—like a book on a shelf, a pearl in a drawer, a diploma on a wall or a license in a wallet. It is not merely a practice, a statement or a structure. It is mysteriously both God’s gift and our responsibility. We must recover and nourish it daily, in spite of our personal sins and stupidities, and in the face of the world’s arrogant self-sufficiency. 2

May we grow in our trust of the risen Christ, who is able to work miracles in us to spread the Good News of his resurrection to others.

1 Cited from: F. Gay, The Friendship Book, 1985, meditation for May 7th.

2 From: Richard A. McCormick, “Changing My Mind About the Changeable Church,” in The Christian Century, August 8-15, 1990 Vol. 107, No. 23, (Chicago:The Christian Century Foundation, 1990), p. 736.

Sermon Easter Day Yr A

Easter Day Yr A, 23/03/2008

Col 3:1-4

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Raised with Christ”

 

A grouchy husband made it into heaven along with his wife. However he was still rather glum. “What’s wrong now?” the wife asked. “Can’t you see, we’re in heaven? This is beautiful—the music is great, the food is out of this world, the mansion has everything and more we’d ever dreamt of, the golf course is the best we’ve ever seen, there’s no fees, no taxes, our health is fantastic, why aren’t you happy? What’s wrong with you?”

The husband replied, “If we hadn’t eaten that miserable oat bran, we could have been here ten years ago.”

The punch line of this joke compliments the words of our second lesson today. In this passage, the Christians at Colossae, which was a town of Phrygia in Asia Minor, close to Ephesus, were exhorted to focus on heaven. Earlier they had been told that through the entrance rite of Christianity; through the sacrament of Holy Baptism; they had died and risen with Christ. Now, continuing with that line of thought, they are instructed: “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

In other words, they are to live, to act like Easter people. They are to live and act as resurrection people. This is true, because for the writer of this letter, the resurrection is something that has already been accomplished in the past, the writer reminds them and us: “you have been raised with Christ,” an action, a fact that has already occurred—not “you shall be raised with Christ” in the future. The resurrection is an accomplished action; a victory won; a fact that has now become part of Christian salvation history, says the writer of Colossians with utmost confidence.

Pastor and professor, Donald Deffner tells the following story: An atheist who served as a custodian at a seminary enjoyed baiting the young theologians. He told one who was reading a book about eternal life, “If you ask me, that’s so much hogwash. When you’re dead, you’re dead.” The student replied, “You’re right, George. When you’re dead, you’re dead.” The janitor walked away, wondering what in the world that young man was doing at a seminary. The student’s point was that hope of eternal life comes only after one has faced the reality of eternal death—which the janitor had not.1

Our second lesson reminds us that hope of eternal life comes only after we have faced the reality of eternal death. We have all done that when we were baptised. In baptism we were buried with Christ in his death and in baptism we were raised with Christ to new, resurrection life. Therefore, the writer exhorts the Colossian Christians to focus on this new reality of resurrection. Resurrection, says the writer, is to be the Christian’s entire orientation in life. Resurrection is the key, the guide, the reason for living life now in this world. Resurrection is the Christian’s life focus. What does that mean? Does it mean that we’re so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good? No, not at all! That is to misunderstand the message of our passage. Rather, it is to live life on earth in light of the reality, the accomplished fact that Christ, through his death and resurrection has won the victory for us and for everyone—that is why he is now “seated at the right hand of God.” This picture of Christ being exalted, by sitting at God’s right hand is a Jewish concept of future reward in heaven; it is giving Christ the ultimate honour as the Messiah. It reminds one of a winner, victor after a great battle. Christ is the Victor, Christ is the Winner, and Christ is the Ultimate Conqueror. Hence militant Easter hymns like “The Strife Is O’er, the Battle Done,” and “Thine Is the Glory” are most appropriate as we celebrate the truth of Easter Sunday and the power of the resurrection. Christ has defeated the powers of sin, death and evil. If that is true, says our second lesson, then the way we live as Christians each day points to that reality of the resurrection.

One of our magazines carried a cartoon of a pastor addressing an overflow congregation on Easter Sunday and asking, “Are you not just a little curious as to what goes on here between Easters?” Regardless of the motivation, what does Easter mean to you? Or rather, what does Christ mean to you? Do you reckon him a notable historical personage like Socrates, Buddha, Gandhi? Do you reverence him as the sublimest ethical teacher of all time? Or do you believe that he overcame the sharpness of death, that is to say, he is not only the Jesus of history but the Jesus of experience, alive and at work in the world here and now? If you incline to shy away from that last question, dismissing it perhaps as sheer mysticism, take another look at the facts. Christianity is something more than hero-worship. It is not just the perpetuation of a great memory. It is a relationship to and a fellowship with a Christ who is “alive for evermore.” Everything in Christianity depends on the reality of the resurrection of Christ, on the fact that he rose from the grave, appeared to his disciples, made his presence felt in their lives, and still makes his presence felt, is in our generation as great an actuality as he was to his first followers.

“Shall I tell you,” David Livingstone asked the students of Glasgow University on his return from sixteen years spent in Africa, “what sustained me amidst the toil and hardship, and loneliness of my exiled life? It was the promise, ‘Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end.’” For multitudes this is life’s most precious conviction. When they speak about Christ, they use not only the past and future tenses but the present tense as well. “Lo, I am with you always.” That is the heartwarming, heart-gladdening fact we celebrate this morning.2

For us Christians, our ultimate security; our eternal home; our most healthy state of being is in heaven with God in Christ. That does not mean we are so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good. Rather, that means living in light of the fact of our baptismal inheritance and covenant. That means living in light of the fact that, as our second lesson reminds us we: “have been raised with Christ.” This is an accomplished fact that shapes all of our history, personally and collectively. In light of this fact, our life on earth can bring resurrection where there is death; hope to the hopeless; love to the loveless. In the face of all sufferings and failures—there is healing and ultimate victory thanks to our risen Saviour Jesus Christ. Yes, we “have been raised with Christ!” Alleluia! Amen.

 

1 Donald L. Deffner, Sermons for Church Year Festivals (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1997), p. 68.

2 Robert J. McCracken, “The Inevitableness of Easter,” in: Paul H. Sherry, Editor, The Riverside Preachers: Fosdick McCracken Campbell Coffin (New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1978), pp. 99-100.